Monday, February 24, 2014

Worlds collide




This is what today was going to be about. The highlights from the Rachel Smalley hour of last Thursday, February 20, and how she ‘cut through complexity’ in the debate (there’s a debate?) on the mainstreaming of intellectually disabled children in our public schools. Citing the case of a young man with Asperger’s and dyslexia who was excluded from Green Bay High last year, Smalley proposed that
[w]orlds can collide when you merge children with special needs into the mainstream education system. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Our children, you see, belong to different worlds, which sometimes collide, with deleterious results. But Smalley had a good news story, too, which happened at her own son’s preschool. Here a child with autism initially presented as ‘extremely dysfunctional’. He was unable to socialise and exhibited all sorts of strange behaviours. But then something changed, and he became like the others.
He is now a fabulous, functioning little boy who’s social and interactive. You would never know he's autistic.
The good news story, as it turns out, was even more offensive than the bad news one. I wanted to sit across a table from Ms Smalley and tell her that when my daughter engages in some of her classically autistic behaviours, she is not being dysfunctional: she is being herself. Furthermore, that my aspiration for her is not that some day someone will never know she’s autistic, but rather that she may find her own place in society, a place of reciprocal acceptance and meaningful inclusion. For this to be possible, I am quite positive it’s not her that we must change. It’s society.

This is what today was going to be about: the beginning of the Smalley piece, and the rest, which is equally upsetting and damaging. But it won’t be, because Autism and Oughtisms has drafted her own response, one that is far more comprehensive, reasoned and lucid than mine would have been. I offer the following paragraph solely for sampling purposes:
I don’t think Smalley means harm, even though her article does harm. I don’t think she set out to misconstrue reality, I just think she did inadequate research into autism, special needs, and the state of the current education system. I would like to think that when we engage in the debate that she calls for – about mainstreaming and special needs children – that people like her will hear our arguments and realise that moving towards inclusion really is in the best interests of all students; that our children are not a threat, they are an opportunity for everyone’s betterment. That there is nothing inherently impossible about integrating our classrooms to better reflect societal reality; the disabled, the different, the differently-abled, are all around us anyway, they are part of our world and deserve to be. We can recognise that some students may never fit well into a mainstream classroom, but we need to know and make sure that the reason they don’t fit in is not simply because we gave up on the disabled. We need to be sure that when a child is excluded from a school, it really is because it was the best and only decision left, rather than the current situation where our kids are so often not even allowed in the front door.
The piece is that good from beginning to end. So go read it. Then come back, if you want, and we’ll talk about something else.

***

Over the weekend, I was included in a feature on blogging by Jonathan Milne for the Herald on Sunday. It’s an appalling piece, and in hindsight I can’t fathom how I could possibly have thought that it would be a good idea to take part in it, given that I was told fairly early on that the other main subjects were Cameron Slater and Martyn Bradbury. So how could this develop into anything other than an ‘angry male partisan bloggers are coming to eat your babies’ story? It was also rather naïve of me to think that I had been chosen for anything other than the Willie and JT controversy angle, and that Milne might have read my blog, like, ever, if only for research purposes. But I guess I had a good run with reporters over the last few months, and then hubris did the rest, as I fancied I might be able to argue against the premise of the piece, like some sort of half-naked Homeric hero. However, Milne and his puerile frame wouldn’t be denied, and so the few snippets of our long conversation that made it into print paint the charming picture of an irascible immigrant who clearly thinks very little of his country of adoption – yet for some reason won’t just bugger off – and who is bent on ‘shutting down the voices with which he disagrees’. Evidence for this includes how I ‘blocked the libertarian Herald on Sunday columnist Damien Grant on Twitter after a disagreement’, in spite of my patient efforts to explain that I did so because he wouldn’t stop pestering me. In the world of Herald on Sunday journalism, telling a Herald on Sunday journalist to go bother someone else is the worst form of censorship.

In the most extravagantly gratuitous piece of misquoting – of an email, no less – Milne managed to imply that I was a draft-dodger, thereby casting a sinister light on my reasons for emigrating to New Zealand. (Blog faithfuls will know I did in fact serve, and with interest.) But what bothers me most is the effort I wasted arguing for the patient work of so many bloggers outside of the braying, ego-driven few – amongst whom Jonathan Milne is more than entitled to include me – to counter the dispiriting shallowness of mainstream media commentary, and carry out cultural and political work of genuine importance. Once more, blogging is to be understood and represented by official journalism solely as its distorted mirror double – obsessed about readership numbers, striving for legitimacy and mainstream acceptance, parasitic, ethically compromised – and never as a distinct domain of knowledge work that is, on the whole, far more diverse and demanding than the opinion or cultural pages of our leading newspapers and magazines. Another case of worlds colliding.

(By the way, Jonathan, that’s the meaning of my campaign for the New Zealand Herald to drop Bob Jones. It’s not that I think he should be silenced. It’s that I think we’ve heard from him enough, and that we need to hear from somebody else. But you know that.)

There was a particularly unpleasant line midway through the piece: ‘The bloggers have the potent personalities - now they just need to turn it into cash.’ It’s unpleasant for many reasons, not least that most bloggers don’t care about making money out of blogging. (I personally wouldn’t mind, and I’ll get to that in a minute.) It also glosses rather grossly over the critical issue of what we value or should value as a society and as a culture. The exchange rate for Jonathan Milne’s feature in yesterday’s Herald on Sunday is roughly $1,200 before tax (had it been written by a freelancer, that is, but it’s a fair estimate of the market value). The far more urgent, considered and well-written response by Autism and Oughtisms to Rachel Smalley – a piece endeavouring to fix the damage done by a robustly salaried media personality – is worth nothing. Not a cent. We have no mechanisms to give it a monetary value outside of the plaintive Donate button on the blog’s sidebar. This button signals that the author wouldn’t mind some form of recompense for her writing, and at the same time that she doesn’t expect it. It also says that writing is just that: work, a product of labour. Even when they try to tell you otherwise.

So here’s my pitch. I used to feel bad asking for money, but then I look at the products for sale out there, in the mainstream. $1,200 for Jonathan Milne's story. Metro charging you $10.50 to watch Noelle McCarthy review books that she may or may not have read. (I should start the bidding at $11, as I can promise you I read everything.) Then there is Bob Jones, who can afford to write for the New Zealand Herald for free, and the paper is only too happy to oblige him. Let me have some of the cash he’s leaving on the table, and as a bonus gift to you I’ll keep my racist, sexist views to myself.

There is no moral obligation here: if you’ve been reading this blog since its beginnings, 258 weekly posts ago, hell, I'm the one who owes you money. Nor is this a transaction. You get nothing in return, and writing this thing makes its own time, so it will keep going regardless (or if it ends, it will end regardless). All that the money – any money – might do is take some of the pressure off the time I don’t spend blogging. Which would be no small thing. So, consider donating if you can and you think that this small piece of our blogosphere is a product of labour and has some value, even though it’s not for sale.

To this end, a donate button:


Or my bank account number if you're in New Zealand and you'd rather use that:

38-9000-0295583-00

Cheers.

17 comments:

Stephen Parkes said...

I was a bit disheartened to see people congratulating Milne for a good piece, to be honest. The comment about you blocking Grant was a give-away of the fatuous angle he was taking.

[Unnecessary explanation: it would be like saying I have a right to stand and tell Milne in a public place that he is a shit journalist (and I do), and there was some obligation on his part to stand there and listen until I had finished speaking. If he walked away he's suppressing my dissenting view!]

I wonder, did Milne put to you, however passively, the suggestion that you were "bent on shutting down those voices" you disagree with, so that you could provide a response? I'm guessing no.

Anonymous said...

It was an appalling column. Agree with Stephen about the absurdity of 'and he blocked a journalist' exclamation mark / gasp.

As for the 'little known' (unranked!) angle- it does seem to really bother some in the MSM that you somehow spoke out of turn by simply and practically protesting something you didn't like.

The fact that others followed the lead you took and some of the advertisers chose to add their dissenting voices- apparently deeply mysterious and alarming. I picture them, shaking their heads, confused, silently forming the words yet unable to speak them. What? Why? How-ovanni? Tis-who?




Peter Bradburn said...

"Another damned fat book, Mr. Gibbon? Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh Mr. Gibbon?" - variously attributed to King George III or Henry, Duke of Gloucester, upon receiving a volume of Gibbon's book.

Sarah Jane Barnett said...

As always, a wonderful post. Your comment "I wanted to sit across a table from Ms Smalley and tell her that when my daughter engages in some of her classically autistic behaviours, she is not being dysfunctional: she is being herself" made me a little weepy. Even though my child does not have autism, I want him to grow up in an educational system where - as you say - society is represented, and more importantly, accepted. Such acceptance is as equally important for those children who would not be considered "dysfunctional" (a horrible description) because it teaches them about inclusion and also about self acceptance of their own (glorious) dysfunctions, which we all have. Childhood is the place to learn about inclusion.

I think that this idea relates to the second half of your post on what we value, and the idea of writing, labour, and legitimacy. I have certainly had trouble with my family and peer group seeing my work as some sort of time-consuming hobby as much of my work as a writer/reviewer is unpaid or poorly paid, hilariously so. But then that's not why I do it, obviously. There is an equation in people's minds between the money we earn and the activity's legitimacy and societal value. Anyway, I'm just rambling now.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"As for the 'little known' (unranked!) angle- it does seem to really bother some in the MSM that you somehow spoke out of turn by simply and practically protesting something you didn't like."

Bradbury meant "unranked" as a put-down, but I genuinely think Milne meant "little-known" as a sort of compliment.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"I wonder, did Milne put to you, however passively, the suggestion that you were "bent on shutting down those voices" you disagree with, so that you could provide a response? I'm guessing no."

He put it in those exact words. I explained to him why I didn't think that was a fair assessment. He went with it anyway.

phil.aznz said...

I'm the dad of two, one who's so intellectually advanced that she's scary at times, and one who has significant speech, cognitive and motor disabilities. I see the effects of mainstream philosophy daily and it applies to both of my kids, each of whom is demonstrably outside the norms.

Mainstreaming has a very important purpose and if done well can indeed achieve exactly what Giovanni puts forward as an imperative -- changing society. We will always have a population which includes the "other" and that is a defining feature of humanity.

Children are remarkably malleable and adaptive. Young brains have the most flexible wiring and this is the time to advance the understanding that even though one of their classmates can't walk, run or jump, that he still enjoys play. Or that none of us is textbook neurotypical, and that if someone needs to retreat to a quiet space because too much visual or auditory stimulus is actually painful, that is a reasonable response.

My observation of my childrens' classmates has borne out my belief that kids understand a lot more than we sometimes credit them. Let's not allow small-minded pundits, or even well-meaning ones, to paint a picture where the only beneficiaries of mainstream education are the ones with special needs.

Robyn Gallagher said...

I'd totally missed that article. Damn, it's like it's from a parallel universe. Or maybe I'm the one living in parallel universe, a realm where blogs are fun and cool and smart.

I've given up using the blog word. It's easy go-to for people who don't know much about internet culture, but when blog/blogger is most deeply associated with inflammatory political sites, I think it's easier to not draw associations with that.

Personal website? Yeah, that'll do. I'll use it in a sentence: Gio, I like your writing on your personal website, Bat Bean Beam.

Ben Wilson said...

I wasn't sure what the point of Milne's article was. No light was shed on bloggers or the blogosphere, or the importance of it, other than the already public revelation that Whale, the son of a high ranked National party member, has the ear of National party people. Apart from that, he says things that people want to kill him for and his marriage is troubled. Bomber's not like that in person. DPF, no info. Edgeler, no info. Gio, we get a life story devoid of his three children, 99% of his blogging topics and his day job, and then a manufactured obsession with shutting alternative opinion down. Oh, and that weird out of context lift out about his military service history.

Who was the target audience, I wonder? Other bloggers, I speculate, who might have risen to that tidbit, if only military service was something that had any contextualization in NZ so that we could form emotional positions about it. Gio, draft-dodging immigrant. FFS. I don't think even the Herald's standard audience is stupid enough to fall for that kind of bait.

Ben Wilson said...

> There is an equation in people's minds between the money we earn and the activity's legitimacy and societal value. Anyway, I'm just rambling now.

It's a good ramble. When I think how poorly teacher's aides are paid and what a difference having one available for my son with cerebral palsy in a mainstreamed environment has made, it's crazy. And it's a difference that is not just for him, but also the other kids. Not just because it makes him less likely to be disruptive, but because he is able to socialize with them in a way that doesn't happen without the help. His intellectual development is flourishing because his environment has not laid significant disadvantage on him as a burden that he alone must face.

He does occasionally act in disruptive ways that are highly unusual. But skilled teachers can deal with that, with good preparation, and good help. Accommodating and developing a wide range of different mental types is their job, after all.

I think it helps a great deal when the commitment to proper support is present from the top down. The principal there was extremely proactive wrt my son, personally conducts several meetings per year with us, the teachers, aides, therapists, and other professionals, to plan for him, in a highly structured and formalized way.

All significantly disabled children should get this. It's to the school's advantage, the child's advantage, the parents' advantage and in the long run, it is to society's advantage.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"Personal website? Yeah, that'll do. I'll use it in a sentence: Gio, I like your writing on your personal website, Bat Bean Beam."

But if we stop using the word blog, won't it mean that the terrorists won?

Giovanni Tiso said...

"My observation of my childrens' classmates has borne out my belief that kids understand a lot more than we sometimes credit them."

Yes, and sometimes we are guilty of not telling them enough. Even in inclusive schools and environments, there can be a tendency not to use words that might label children in front of their peers, but we have found that explaining autism to our daughter's classmates helped.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"I think that this idea relates to the second half of your post on what we value, and the idea of writing, labour, and legitimacy. I have certainly had trouble with my family and peer group seeing my work as some sort of time-consuming hobby as much of my work as a writer/reviewer is unpaid or poorly paid, hilariously so. But then that's not why I do it, obviously. There is an equation in people's minds between the money we earn and the activity's legitimacy and societal value."

Sometimes just the opposite happens, and you get, say, a piece in the Guardian - which pays a pittance, or nothing at all if it's a repost - and it bestows a lot of legitimacy upon you even though really all it's done is confirm that your writing work is unlikely to ever develop into a fully viable profession. I have strangely mixed feelings about all this (would it be healthy for me to be a full time cultural commentator, if it were even possible?) but I guess that's for another day.

Ben Wilson said...

>would it be healthy for me to be a full time cultural commentator, if it were even possible?

If you inherited millions, never needing to work for a crust again, say? If you were given the freedom to write all and only the things you actually want to write, would that be what you chose? I'd have thought there's got to be at least one book in you, a work of greater length than just commentary.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Yes, if you throw book-writing into the mix it becomes a saner prospect.

Heather said...

The intent of that article appears to be purely to legitimise (or perhaps rehabilitate) WhaleOil - a misunderstood family man with an "internet persona" (which, curiously enough, you're not) - as a source of information for National (and likely the Herald).

My bf warned me off reading that article; I should've listened. I was all arage for the better part of a couple of hours - it wasn't just the politics were wrong, the astounding absence of any kind of intellectual rigor, a single logical or informative argument, or even basic reading comprehension was insulting. Between that article and the awful "low on money" headliner I walked past, Herald On Sunday has cast off any facade that it's anything other than tabloid trash.

Peter Sledmere said...

I remember once seeing a piece of graffiti that read: Punk Exists. I thought, yeah, so does syphilis, napalm, and dog shit in the streets, but I don't have to like any of it. Same goes now for Cameron Slater, and (although I never read it) the Herald on Sunday. All I can say is, you have - probably - been insulted by much better men, and Milne and his ilk are not worth the emotional cost of dealing with them. It's unlikely that anyone's opinion will be changed by corrosive pieces such as the one you quote, because people who buy that paper aleady think that way. On the other hand, every article you write gives me a new perspective on something.

ShareThis